Is the Mafia Saving Italy From ISIS, or Just Profiting From Them?

Why the notorious organized-crime syndicates could prove to be Europe’s best natural defense against the terror group.

12.11.15 4:24 PM ET

ROME — About 20 miles north of Naples, there’s a beachfront community that operates so far outside the law no one even tries to intervene. It’s there, among the abandoned hotels built illegally in the 1970s and ’80s, that the Camorra crime syndicate has forged a terrifying alliance with the local Nigerian mafia known as the EYE of Castel Volturno, which aspires to the ISIS model of terrorism. 

It is no great secret that the EYE and Camorra run a healthy partnership in arms- and human-trafficking from the seaside no man’s land. Castel Volturno is where new Nigerian prostitutes endure a lurid juju voodoo ritual involving menstrual blood, pubic hair, and toenails. It’s also where, in 2008, seven Nigerian men were killed in a spray of bullets in front of the Ob Ob Exotic Fashion Tailor Shop by Camorra thugs. Their crime? Selling drugs and arms on Camorra territory. There have been no conflicts since then, officials say, because now they work together.

Authorities say they fear the Camorra and other organized-crime groups are now profiting from terrorists who traverse through Italy, including Paris bomber Salah Abdeslam, who came through in August. 

At the same time, those same authorities say they’re certain that the Camorra and other crime syndicates want the monopoly on terror in Italy—and won’t let ISIS affiliates dig in too deep. “Our country has a vast territory, difficult to control and full of places that could be considered sensitive targets. So it would be foolish, not to say ridiculous, to say we are secure despite constant monitoring of public transportation, major shopping centers, and airports,” a former agent who called himself Ivy with Italy’s Secret Service told Panorama magazine recently. “But the real protection is the indirect one exercised by criminal organizations.

“Italy is able to protect itself from terrorist attacks in just two ways: the precise monitoring of ‘weak signals’ that allows wiretapping and targeted preventive interventions, and with the Mafia.”

New details of this deadly partnership were laid out by a Ghanian man who had worked for years as a collaborator with the EYE Nigerian mafia in Castel Volturno—and who recently switched sides and turned pentito. The man, who is now under police protection after testifying to a judge about the alliance, gave a videotaped interview to Corriere Della Sera from his secret hiding place.

He says an ISIS fighter he knew from his days in Libya had recently contacted him about making a scouting trip to Italy. The terrorist, who was reportedly financed by ISIS in Libya, asked him to help arrange visits to Rome and Milan in particular, taking photos of spots that could be attacked. The EYE thugs were happy to provide maps and even a camera, and asked the Ghanian man to be the driver to take him around. But just before the ISIS figure arrived, the Ghanian man says the Camorra put a stop to the plans. “I was scared that something bad would happen in Italy,” he told Corriere della Sera. “But when I left, I was threatened by both sides.”

The mob may keep Italy safe, but it will likely not keep the terrorists out. This week, Italy was told it could face EU sanctions for not upholding the basic tenets of the Dublin Treaty, which requires that all migrants and refugees are registered upon entering a country. That lapse is not only disastrous when it comes to keeping tabs on the heavy influx of migrants into Europe, but it could also facilitate the movement of jihadi fighters hiding among them.

Carlo Tombolo, the scientific director of Italy’s Observatory on Small Arms, says Italy’s organized-crime syndicates in southern Italy make a healthy profit on terrorists. “Cells linked to Islamic extremism can only pass through areas such as Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, and Campania, but they are not allowed to stop,” he told The Daily Beast. “The Camorra, the ’Ndrangheta, and the Mafia, if anything, can only gain from their transit.”

But he says the extremists also run a risk of getting too cozy with the mob, who are under heavy surveillance across the country. “Even the terrorists themselves know that territorial control is exercised by the Mafia, and it just might get them targeted by investigators,” Tombolo says, noting that the two heinous groups have plenty to gain from each other. “There are weapons belonging to ISIS and Boko Haram buried all over the Italian countryside.”

Mob protection is not just limited to Italy. Giovanni Gambino, a Sicilian-born son of a Gambino family kingpin told NBC News recently that the Mafia in Sicily would protect New York. The world is dangerous today, but people living in New York neighborhoods with Sicilian connections should feel safe. We make sure our friends and families are protected from extremists and terrorists, especially the brutal, psychopathic organization that calls itself the Islamic State,” he said. “The Mafia has a bad reputation, but much of that’s undeserved. As with everything in life, there are good, bad, and ugly parts—the rise of global terrorism gives the Mafia a chance to show its good side.”